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9 February 2012

Alex Salmond’s counterfeit monarchism

The SNP’s decision to embrace the royals looked like a clever strategic manoeuvre. But is it beginni

By James Maxwell

On Monday, Alex Salmond became the latest in a long line of British politicians to deliver a toe-curling tribute to the Queen on her Diamond Jubilee. “Her Majesty”, he said, “has served her country with the utmost grace and distinction; her dedication and commitment has inspired countless people across the country and around the world. And of course, her affection for Scotland is reciprocated by Scots of all generations.”

On the basis of this grovelling paean, it would be easy to forget that the SNP’s pledge to retain the monarchy after Scotland becomes an independent country is relatively new. In fact, although it has never officially been a republican organisation, there has always been a strong thread of anti-royalist sentiment running through its rank and file. This was at its most prominent in the late 1970s and early 80s following the emergence of the 79 Group, an influential socialist faction which was eventually expelled from the party because of its alleged links to Sinn Fein. More recently, in an attempt to defuse what remains a highly charged issue for much of the activist base, the leadership had offered to hold a referendum on the abolition of the throne following Scotland’s secession from the UK.

But four years ago, Salmond – himself once a member of the 79 Group – changed that. Now, the SNP says it plans to leave the 1603 Union of the Crowns untouched regardless of the how the debate on independence plays out. One reason this dramatic policy adjustment went unchallenged at the time was that the party had not long entered government and needed to maintain discipline. Another is that under the SNP’s proposed citizens initiative programme there may be opportunity in the future for the public to trigger a vote on the monarchy through a petitions process.

Cleary, the nationalists new-found monarchism does not sit well with their traditional opposition to other features of the UK’s antiquated constitutional system. The party never nominates its MPs for peerages and, in recent years, has consistently stressed its belief in a popular conception of sovereignty which has at its core the democratic will of the Scottish people. It is difficult, then, to escape the conclusion that Salmond’s decision was anything other than highly calculated and strategic.

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The SNP is aware that many Scots view independence as an unnecessary and possibly reckless leap into the unknown. Three hundred years of London rule and at least four decades of relentless Unionist scaremongering have encouraged the belief that self-government could result in catastrophe. So in an effort to reassure the Scottish public that the break-up of Britain would not be as disruptive as its opponents claim, Salmond has developed a narrative of continuity. An independent Scotland, he argues, won’t share a parliament with the English, Welsh and Northern Irish, but it will still share a currency, a culture and a monarch. In other words, life will not change radically if Scotland leaves the Union.

In some ways, this ultra-cautious approach has been very effective. The SNP, once derided as a pressure group for whisky-soaked extremists, is now firmly established in the British political mainstream. Only the Scottish Labour Party – still suffering from the trauma caused by its crushing defeat at the devolved elections last May – remains convinced that a dark streak of chauvinism underpins the nationalist world view. In other ways, however, it has been seriously counter-productive.

Of late, one of the SNP’s main demands has been for responsibility over the Crown Estate Commission’s (CEC) Scottish functions be devolved to Holyrood. The UK government is against this, principally because it doesn’t want to relinquish control over an asset which in the future could generate significant revenues through renewable energy production. So, as respected land reform campaigner Andy Wightman highlighted, last year George Osborne moved to link the size of the sovereign grant – the annual sum given by the state to the Royal family for the maintenance of its properties – to a portion of the CEC’s profits. This was a brazen political manoeuvre designed to create an administrative obstacle to any transfer of power. Yet, the Scottish government raised no protest. Why? The only explanation is that it was desperate not be seen as critical of or hostile to the monarchy.

This limp capitulation should have set-off alarm bells for the SNP membership. Why on earth had their normally combative leaders backed away from a fight with Westminster? But again, there was not a whisper of protest. The SNP’s suppression of its republican instincts is indicative of a wider small-c conservative trend within the party. In his bid to assuage popular anxieties about the possible consequences of self-determination, Salmond believes he has to abandon the most radical aspects of the nationalist project in exchange for the gloss of moderation. Those who see independence as a means to a different and better Scotland should be worried about what else he might be willing to trade away.